Category Archives: Spiritual & Religious Writings

“perfection of the body” comes first

Several days ago I read an excellent article in the HUFFINGTON POST by Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of the Commonwealth.  It is so well written and so forceful that I want to share it in it’s entirety.

All of us need to take the words of Rabbi Sacks to heart.

Why Fighting Poverty and Hunger Is a Religious Duty

Posted: 01/26/2013 7:48

One of my favourite Jewish sayings is, “Many people worry about their own stomachs and the state of other people’s souls. The real task is to do the opposite: to worry about other people’s stomachs and the state of your own soul.” Or as Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883) used to put it: “Someone else’s material needs are my spiritual responsibility.”

I was reminded of these sentiments by the massive campaign, Enough Food for Everyone IF, currently being mounted by NGOs and religious groups, among them several from the Jewish community, to campaign for stronger action on the part of the nations of the world to address the still acute need for food in many countries.

The facts are devastating. Close to a billion people — one-eighth of the world’s population — still live in hunger. Each year 2 million children die through malnutrition. This is happening at a time when doctors in Britain are warning of the spread of obesity. We are eating too much while others starve.

This is not just an economic and political challenge. It is a religious one as well. The Hebrew Bible contains multiple provisions to ensure that no one would go hungry. The corners of the field, forgotten sheaves of grain, gleanings that drop from the hands of the gleaner, and small clusters of grapes left on the vine were to be given to the poor.

Everything that grew in the seventh year belonged to everyone. In the third and sixth year of the septennial cycle, a tithe of all produce went to those in need. As 19th century social reformer Henry George put it, the great concern of Moses was “to lay the foundation of a social state in which deep poverty and degrading want should be unknown.” It was the world’s first welfare state and the first form of redistributive taxation.

One contemporary translation of these biblical imperatives is Leket (“gleanings”), Israel’s national food bank, which rescues surplus food and agricultural produce that would otherwise be destroyed from catering halls, farms and Kibbutzim, restaurants, corporate cafeterias and bakeries and distributes them to the disadvantaged. Where there is a will, there is a way.

In the Middle Ages, Moses Maimonides said that though the ultimate aim of religion is “perfection of the soul,” nonetheless “perfection of the body” — by which he meant this kind of alleviation of poverty and the fight against injustice — came first. You cannot, he said, give your mind to higher things if you lack food to eat or a home in which to live. That is why the alleviation of poverty is a religious duty.

The problem today, as the organisers of the campaign put it, is that the world produces enough food for everyone but not everyone has enough food. There are places where farmers are being forced off their land, and countries in which international corporations avoid paying local taxes. Food prices are often kept artificially high. The result is that the millennium development goals set out by the United Nations at the start of the new millennium are not being reached. Fine words have not yet been turned into deeds.

As chance or providence would have it, today is Tu Bishvat, the special day in the Jewish calendar known as the New Year for trees. Throughout history this served to remind Jews to bring a tithe to Jerusalem where fruit was shared with friends and strangers, or on other years given to the poor.

We are, Jews believe, not owners of the wealth we produce, merely guardians — “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” — and one of the conditions of our guardianship is that we share our blessings with others.

One of my favourite Jewish stories is of the great mystical rabbi Shneor Zalman of Ladi, who awoke one night to hear his grandson crying. He went downstairs and found his son so intent on his studies that he had failed to hear the cry. So the grandfather went into the child’s bedroom and gently rocked the baby until it went to sleep again. Then he went to his son and said, “My child, I do not know what you are studying, but it cannot be the word of God if it makes you deaf to the cry of the child.”

Today, even in a world of plenty, too many of the world’s children are crying. Let us not be deaf to their cry.

Originally published in The Times of London.

the Great Old One

Without a doubt, my favorite poet is Shams-ud-din Muhammad Hafiz,  Born in Shiraz, Persia in the early 14th century, and Iran’s most treasured poet, Hafiz is also considered one of the greatest lyrical poets of all time.

What draws me to Hafiz is that his poetry is both inherently ecstatic and sacred. All his poems are solidly rooted in what Daniel Ladinsky calls "the Mystical Ground of Unreason – and a love and experience that surpasses the intellect, time and space." There is always a wonderful playfulness in the poems of Hafiz, but there is also an inescapable logic and truth.

I love that Hafiz was fearless in his renderings of our human condition, and even more importantly, of the depth and passion of God’s love for each of us. I also love Hafiz’s unique vocabulary of names for God.

For Hafiz, God is so much more than the Father or the Mother. Hafiz knew God as the Sweet Uncle, the Generous Merchant, the Problem Giver and even the Clever Rascal. God is the Music, the Dancer, the Wine, the Beautiful Companion. God is the Tavern Keeper, and above all, the Beloved,

Known for centuries as "The Tongue of the Invisible," Hafiz sings wild and beautiful love songs to us from the heart of God. Even though diluted through time from the 14th century, his poetry is so rooted in God’s love that it continues to offer courage, hope and joy to a world hungry for the presence that only comes from walking with the beloved.

All to often we forget that God loves us far more than we can ever imagine. We forget that we live and move and breathe surrounded by a love that infuses all creation with a glory and power beyond comprehension. Hafiz is one who helps bring that truth back into focus for me.

BEAUTIFUL HANDS

This is the kind of Friend
You are —

Without making me realize

My soul’s anguished history,

You slip into my house at night,

And while I am sleeping,

You silently carry off

All my suffering and sordid past

In Your beautiful
Hands.

true love for the hungry

Oscar Romero, the martyred Archbishop of El Salvador, has long been a source of inspiration for me. His words are filled with both a deep  indomitable courage and real poetic beauty. Yet, at the same time, they are spoken with an utter humility that demonstrates a spirituality born of years of communion with the Father.

His words are always touched with suffering; his countrymen, his flock, his friends, and his own. Even though his life was ended by an assassin’s bullet, Oscar Romero’s spirit lives on. His spirit, and his challenge to all of us can never be silenced.

It is a caricature of love to try and cover over
with alms what is lacking in justice,
to patch over with an appearance of benevolence
when social justice is missing.
True love begins by demanding what is just
in the relations of those who love.

Oscar Romero
April 13, 1979

Stop Hunger Now provides food for millions of otherwise hungry schoolkids every year. Those meals are necessary to sustain life, but feeding hungry children has nothing to do with true love.

True love has to do with creating a just world, one where we do not allow children to suffer from hunger. That’s why we work so hard to engage others in the fight to end the obscenity of hunger. Working together we can achieve a world where hunger is just a memory. That is what true love demands, a world of justice, where hungry is nothing more than a distant memory.

Please join in the movement to end hunger in our lifetime. We can make it happen. It just takes true love.

any number of fatal wounds

We live in the midst of the most consumptive society in the history of the world. Advertisers annually spend billions of dollars in an attempt to make us dissatisfied with who we are and what we already have.

That makes contentment difficult to find. In our market-driven society we can never be thin enough. Our houses are never large enough. Our teeth are never white enough and our breath is never fresh enough.

The constant bombardment of advertising causes common sense to collaspe. Then our values erode as they suffer from the unrelenting attack on our self image. We lose perspective, and even come to the place where we honestly think we are poor.

This is just one of the reasons I feel blessed to travel internationally on a regular basis. Every time I have the priviledge of visiting our Stop Hunger Now partners outside the US, I am forcibly, even shockingly, reminded how indescribably rich all of us are in the United States.

The writer of First Timothy in the New Testament provide us with a stark and timely reminder for the need to stay stong in the face of the prevasive pressure to purchase happiness. In I Timothy 6:6–10, he writes:

Religion, of course, does bring large profits, but only to those who are content with what they have. We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it; but as long as we have food and clothing, let us be content with that. People who long to be rich are a prey to temptation; they get trapped into all sorts of foolishness and dangerous ambitions which eventually plunge them into ruin and destruction. The love of money is the root of all evils and there are some who, pursuing it, have wandered away from the faith, and so given their souls any number of fatal wounds.

What the writer is saying is that true godliness with contentment is great wealth. And contentment comes from resting in the abudance of God’s grace, not having the latest and greatest, or the newest and fastest.

united by a common thread

Justice is a common thread among all three of the world’s great religous traditions springing from Abrahamic roots. Judaism, Islam and Christianity all share the basic understanding that justice is intergral to faithfulness and living a righteous life.

Helping the poor is a part of living justly. In fact, the Hebrew word of charity is tzedakah, and simply means “justice. For Jews, giving to help the poor isn’t optional. It forms an essential part of a just and righteous lifestyle.

In the Talmud it is written that charity is equal in importance to all the other commandments put together. The Talmud also states that Jews should give a minimum of ten percent of their income as tzedakah

In Islam, the faithful are also required to help those in need. All Muslims (above a minimum level of wealth) are supposed to give zakat in proportion to their assets. The requirement is to annually give at least 2.5 percent of one’s liquid assets to benefit the poor and those in need.

Just as in Judaism and Islam, Christianity places helping the poor as a major tenet of faithful living. Sharing with the poor is not a matter of charity for Christians, but a mandated obligation that cannot be separated from salvation.

For all three of these great faith traditions, righteousness means sharing our resources with those who are in need. Justice is a common bond that unites all of Abraham’s children. Helping feed the hungry and meet the needs of the poor is a vital part of our spirituality, regardless of the tradition which we follow.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could focus on this common bond rather than those differences we allow to divide us? We might then even be able to celebrate a day when hunger becomes just a memory.

 

the knife is in our hand

I have often made the point in my posts that Judaism, Islam and Christianity all share the same spiritual roots and therefore they have a similar emphasis on helping the poor and hungry. All three of these great religions understand that meeting the needs of the poor and hungry is a matter of justice.

Chiniese traditions are quite distinct, with more of a direct focus on familial relationships, yet there is also a strong understanding about one’s obligation to help those in need it this tradition, as well. Our moral obligation to meet the needs of the poor is universal.

Mencius, commonly regarded to be the most authoritative interpreter of Confucius, lived about 300 years before the Christian era. In one of his works he describes a meeting with King Hui of Liang. Mencius writes that he told the king:

There are people dying from famine on the roads, and you do not issue the stores of your granaries for them. When people die, you say” It is not owing to me; it is owing to the year.” In what does this differ from stabbing a man and killing him, and then saying, “It was not I, it was the weapon?”

Our responsiblity for taking care of each other is not new. We know that to whom much has been given, much is required. We just need to begin realizing that we have far more required of us than we have been willing to accept.

Like King Hui of Liang, most of us have personal granaries overflowing at a time when there are children dying from lack of food. I think the knife is in our hand…

a vote for love

I just exercised the gift of my citizenship. Since I will be in Southeast Asia on May 8th, I voted early in order to make sure my voice is heard in the upcoming election.

One reason, in fact an important reason, for voting early is that I wanted to have a say in the kind of community in which I live. I think that is important, and if I didn’t vote then I would be abdicating my right to help influence such decisions.

I have always believed that the Christian gospel can be boiled down to one word: love. Jesus spoke about the entire law being reduced down to love. He said that the greatest commandment was to love God with all our heart and mind and soul…and the second greatest commandment was like the first, to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Later in the New Testament the writer of the First Letter of John wrote that “perfect love casts out fear.” I truly believe in the truth of that statement.

I voted so that I could live in a community based on love, not the fear of different lifestyles and different preferences than my own. God is love, and the gospel in one word is love. And because that love completely transcends my understanding, I do not have to be the abitrator of the choices others might make.

My hope is that all of those so fearful of those living differently than themselves would just rest in the love that surrounds us, and allow the unmerited grace of God to take care of everything else.

Our time and our efforts could much better be spent in advocating and working on behalf of our family that lives in constant fear of starvation than to preach fear of alternative lifestyles. That’s why I voted early. And that’s why I cast my vote for love.

the radical disparity is growing

In Agenda For A Biblical People, an early book by Jim Wallace, the founder of the Sojourners Community, Wallace writes that:

The divisions in the world today are less along the lines of ideology than they are along the lines of the powerful and powerless, rich and poor, strong and weak, those who benefit and those who are victimized. The scenario of our times is a growing conflict generated by the radical disparity between the rich and poor of the world.

Even though that book was first published in 1976, the words of Wallace hold true today. His prophetic stance points out some central concerns around the need for a fundamental redistribution of wealth. We will never have justice on a global scale until we address the growing divide between the obscenely rich and the abysmally poor.

People of faith need to realize that these are spiritual issues. Faithfulness in a world consumed by a thrist for wealth and power must address the need for lifestyles that reflect true community and just standards of living for all.